Watton Gliders take to the skies to celebrate landmark anniversary

FORMER squadron leaders dusted off their flight suits and guided vintage gliders back into the skies to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a flying school near Watton.

FORMER squadron leaders dusted off their flight suits and guided vintage gliders back into the skies to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a flying school near Watton.

The 611 Volunteer Gliding School (VGS), based at the Stanta airfield, has trained thousands of air cadets in the basics of aviation controls.

Many have gone on to successful careers as pilots or engineers in the armed forces after the 35-strong team of volunteer instructors had given them the confidence to make their first solo unpowered flights.

To commemorate 611 VGS's achievements, a collection of aircraft it had used since the 1940s was brought together on Saturday - some loaned by their private owners, and most still capable of flight.

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They included a working Kirby Cadet Mark III, a wooden, fabric-covered aircraft introduced by the school in 1953, and a Dagling Primary, which would have been used for training during the war at the school's first base at Hethersett Racecourse.

The day was also a chance for previous commanders to reminisce about their time at the school, with current squadron leader Ken Stedman joined by Sqn Ldrs Donald Johnstone, Jeremy Lightowler and Ron Page - who was in charge from 1964 to 1987.

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Sqn Ldr Page, 84, said: 'It is great to be back. The last time I flew was at an open day here two years ago so I shall have a go at flying one of these aircraft - I don't care which one.

'It is fantastic for the cadets. I often have people come up to me and salute to say: 'Remember me? You were my squadron leader'.'

Sqn Ldr Page said he had sent 863 people 'solo' during his instructing career - including legendary fighter pilot Douglas Bader, whose heroics, despite the loss of both legs, inspired the nation during world war two.

After his retirement from the RAF, Bader was often invited to 611 VGS - then based at Swanton Morley - to present successful cadets with their 'wings'.

But on one occasion, Sqn Ldr Page convinced the great pilot to be trained to take a solo glider flight - which landed him in hot water for letting a 'civilian' fly an RAF plane.

'He was marvellous,' he said. 'Believe it or not, I ended up giving him his cadet wings, and it was on the six o'clock news. I had to write a letter of explanation to my chief because Douglas was a civilian and in his reply I was told I could have lost my commission. But in the last paragraph, he said in view of the wonderful publicity it had given the school, I would be let off.'

The school moved to the former RAF Watton airfield in 1996, and now uses five modern fibreglass Viking gliders.

Sqn Ldr Stedman said: 'These people have given up so much of their time over so many years and done a lot of good for air cadets and young people.

'It is a wonderful opportunity to get them together and reminisce and remember these old aircraft. To get a Mark III, two Sedburghs and a Swallow together which are all serviceable is quite amazing.'

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